Mike Nelson of Martin Guitars Talks Heritage, Craftmanship, Brand Evolution and John Mayer

By ANA InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: Mike Nelson of Martin Guitars Talks Heritage, Craftmanship, Brand Evolution and John Mayer

Mike Nelson (pictured above), Vice President, Marketing, Martin Guitars will be a speaker at the ANA Brand Activation & Creativity Conference, a virtual event to be held Sept. 12-13. ANA Senior Director, Brand & Media, John Paquin recently sat down with Mike for a pre-conference interview.

John Paquin: There are legacy brands, and then there’s Martin - few of us are stewards of a nearly 200-year-old brand, and one still owned by the founding family! With such a rich and storied legacy, how does that responsibility weigh on your shoulders? What’s it like to report to a sixth-generation owner?

Mike Nelson: Martin’s legacy is an incredible asset, but it is also daunting. One of the most challenging aspects of the job is to make sure we stay true to the heritage, while moving the brand forward to maintain relevance. Plus, there are millions of devoted fans - some of whom have had a Martin guitar passed down through their family for generations - who are also stewards of the brand, helping to keep us honest. And working for a sixth-generation owner is such a unique opportunity. It’s rare to have that much institutional knowledge in one person, and because he wants to ensure the company stays in good shape for his grandchildren, he takes a much longer view than anyone I have ever worked with.

Paquin: With those six generations of ownership, it’s clear that the family takes great pride in that heritage of craftmanship. Have there been times where they have thought of perhaps selling the company, or moving manufacturing overseas to lower costs and boost sales as other icon brands have? Chuck Taylors now made in China come to mind.

Nelson: One of the things that makes Martins so special is that they have been made in Nazareth, PA, for over 150 years. While we do have manufacturing in Mexico to help us offer lower priced models, we have no plans to leave Nazareth. And because Chris Martin takes such a long view for the company, he has no intention of selling.

Paquin: A classic marketers’ challenge is what to keep, what to evolve, and what to leave behind when building, or re-inventing a brand. That must be a tough conversation to have at Martin. How do you decide? Does the term “brand building” or “re-inventing” even apply to a brand like Martin?

Nelson: At Martin we’re always more about evolution than revolution, but we understand the brand must evolve if we are going to stay relevant. So, while we are open to re-inventing the visual identity, and working with new marketing platforms, or pushing the limits of what an acoustic guitar can do, we have to stay true to what has made us great. And that has really come out in the new brand strategy and purpose. For 190 years, Martin has made the finest instruments to help unleash our customers’ inner artist. That will never change.

Paquin: With an amazing line-up of musicians who have played Martins over the years, from Muddy Waters to Dylan to Clapton, celebrity endorsements or “signature” products seem like they would be a natural part of your marketing plan, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. How do you view these “brand assets”, and how do you leverage them without compromising them?

Nelson: The first thing we consider when working with an artist is authenticity. They have to be a fan of the brand. We will never pay an artist to play our guitars over another brand. Because of this, the artists are happy to work with us. Luckily there are plenty to choose from. But when it comes to signature models we want to be selective. Having a Martin signature guitar is special. So, while they are a key part of our marketing plan (we recently launched a new John Mayer model, a Shawn Mendes model, and a Rich Robinson - Black Crowes - model) we don’t want to overdo it.

Paquin: And speaking of lost arts, and the subject matter at hand for the conference, how does a company such as Martin, a trusted “partner” to so many of the most talented and creative people in our society, think about, and leverage that proximity to such creativity in your own marketing programs?

Nelson: It’s a great position to be in. With access to so many great artists there is no shortage of content. But it’s also a challenge, because we never want the artist to feel like we’re exploiting them. So, we walk the fine line of working with the artists to promote our brand and our products, without being too commercial. Because of this many artists are willing to give us more than we could ever afford. An example of this happened this year when John Mayer decided to do a solo acoustic tour where he played only Martins. He asked if he could put our logo on his concert t-shirts, he played our guitars, alone, on stage for sold out arenas, and we got a lot of great content. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Paquin: And finally, what is the one best piece of advice a 200-year-old brand has to offer to modern marketers?

Nelson: Stay true to who you are and resist the temptation to follow trends. We’ve seen a lot of fads in the music industry over the years, but we stayed focused on our core values and it served us well.

Posted at MediaVillage through the Thought Leadership self-publishing platform.

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